Monday, July 29, 2019

The Brief Spring of Global Science: How Climate Science is Affected by Nationalism and Propaganda

The start screen of the "Climadrom" site, kept by Aleksander Zhabskiy. The site is strongly oriented toward rejecting the current scientific interpretation of climate change, labeled as "climate alarmism," "hysteria," and the like. This view seems to be fashionable in Russia in all sectors of society and, nowadays, Russian science seems to have rejected the current understanding of climate change as seen in the West. Yet, we must keep trying to bridge the gap: if people don't speak to each other, the only way they have to communicate is to fight. In this sense, the site by Mr. Zhabskiy has some merit in seeking for a discussion at the international level. I did present my views that he correctly published.

There was a time, during the 19th century, when Darwin's ideas on natural selection were rejected by the whole French science. One reason was the influence of Baron George Cuvier who had interpreted the geological record in terms of mass extinctions periodically caused by planetary catastrophes (see this link to know more about this fascinating story). French scientists saw Cuvier's role in nationalistic terms and thought that it was outrageous that their great master was contradicted by those silly Britons.

The concept of "National Science" was rather common throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Earlier on, scientists were still communicating with each other in Latin, but that was abandoned with the 19th century and that led to science being more and more constrained by national borders and national cultures. There are many examples of how this evolution affected the scientific debate: one is how the work by Alfred Wegener on continental drift was widely rejected in the 1950s in part because of anti-German sentiments in the West (a link). I could cite examples of how the Fascist government in Italy tried to purify Italian Science from foreign influences in the 1930s. Then, of course, there was "Soviet Science," supposedly different from the decadent capitalist science practiced in the plutocracies collectively known as "The West." An example is how the Ukrainian biologist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko fought Western Genetics.

But all that seemed to be past and gone with the internationalization of science after that the American legions had imposed English on the rest of the world, just as the Roman legions had imposed Latin long before. As a young researcher, in the 1980s, I perfectly understood that science was international: everyone, anywhere in the world, could be a scientist by accepting two fundamental tenets: publish in English and speak in English. International science was egalitarian, global, and suspicious of national borders. The researchers of my age even tended to mock the older generation of scientists because of their limited command of English. The fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, seemed to give the final push to the full internationalization of science: there would be no more "Soviet Science." Just as the world's economy was being globalized, the same was taking place for science.

That was just a brief spring: today, nationalism is returning everywhere with a vengeance and science is not immune to the trend. I can tell you how the capability of my younger colleagues to speak English seems to be going down every year a little more and one of the shocks of my life was when, a few years ago, one of the students engaged in a laboratory exercise complained to me that the instruction manual of the instrument he was using was in English.

The downfall of English is just a personal impression but it seems clear to me. Some people in Italy seem to find it totally incomprehensible that I keep a blog in English. Actually, I don't know another example of an Italian scientist who keeps a blog in English, except for my coworker Ilaria Perissi. (If you know of other examples, please let me know!)

How about Climate Science? As it is normal, it is an international field that encompasses contributions from all countries with a significant budget in scientific research. But it seems to me that in Italy climate science is especially neglected. Don't get me wrong: there are several excellent climate scientists in Italy, but the average effort in the field is not impressive. Some evidence of the problem is a recent petition denying the anthropogenic origin of global warming, said to have been signed by 90 leading Italian scientists. Actually, the  "leading scientists" are a ragtag band of elderly scientists, scientists with no competence on climate, and people who are not even scientists -- some of them belonging to all three categories at the same time. Nevertheless, that such petition exists is a symptom of deep problems. Much worse was when, in 2015, the president of the Italian Society of Physics (!!) refused to sign a statement on climate science in support of the ongoing Paris negotiations.

So, what's the problem in Italy? Perhaps the same the French had with their Baron Cuvier. In Italy, we have Antonino Zichichi, an elderly particle physicist who has left a strong imprint in Italian physics and who, today well in his 90s, is still active in criticizing climate science in ways that we can define at least questionable. But it is also a question of science being intertwined with politics: the Italian movement called "sovranism" is clearly suspicious of climate science as a foreign scam.

And let's go to Russia. Judging from what can be read in the scientific literature in English, Russia may be in the same conditions as Italy in terms of neglect of climate science, perhaps even worse. With the best of good will, I couldn't locate much in terms of major contributions to climate science by Russian scientists working in Russia, with the work by Gorshkov and Makarieva being the main exception with their concept of the "biotic pump". I asked my colleagues if they could name a serious Russian climate scientist working in Russia and they couldn't. Maybe they are publishing in Russian?

I may be wrong if I say that Russia is neglecting climate science, but there is clearly a problem, there: a much larger one which has to do with politics. I must admit that, If I were a Russian citizen, I would find it hard to dismiss the idea that the whole story of anthropogenic global warming is just one more psyop coming from the West. The Western media are producing so much propaganda and so many lies that the temptation is to disbelieve anything that comes from a Western source. It is the destiny that befell the Moon landings, now widely disbelieved in the very country that was so proud of having sent men to the Moon not long ago. The same destiny may be affecting climate science: despite decades of efforts of thousands of excellent scientists, it tends to fall into the same category of government-sponsored propaganda. All this goes together with the locking up of science and scientists within national boundaries, something that may turn foreign scientists from colleagues into enemy agents and foreign science into political propaganda.

And now? Could we ever recover a unity in science allowing us to act together against climate change? Could we do that before it will be too late? For sure, at present, we are moving in the opposite direction. As usual, when people refuse to talk to each other, the only possible way to communicate is to fight. And, unfortunately, it may be where we are heading to.

I am grateful to Mr. Aleksander Zhabskiy for the useful conversations we had on the matters covered in this post.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)